Archive for November 30th, 2008

1824: Henry Fauntleroy, choked on debt

7 comments November 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1824, the last Englishman to hang for forgery, met his fate at Newgate prison.

Henry Fauntleroy making his defense. From this Harvard gallery (part of the university’s Crimes Virtual Collection) of the period’s hanging press, including a Fauntleroy broadsheet (huge image, with a generic-looking merchant type as the criminal).

In a celebrated affair of the time, Fauntleroy was found to have inherited from his father a partnership in the foundering London bank Marsh, Sibbald & Co.

Desperate to keep the concern alive by maintaining a front of normalcy, Fauntleroy serviced its obligations by forging powers of attorney authorizing him to sell stock that he was supposed to merely be holding for investors.

Ever the diligent clerk, Fauntleroy made a ledger of the fraudulent transactions, plainly footnoted:

In order to keep up the credit of our house, I have forged powers of attorney for the above sums and parties, and sold out to the amount here stated, and without the knowledge of my partners. I kept up the payments of the dividends, but made no entries of such payments in our books.

The more things change

Fauntleroy, of course, didn’t have the reach of the Smartest Guys in the Room; what he did by foul means the collapse of his firm might have (more or less) accomplished by what economists regard as fair.

The firm, said the defendant, was in quite a fix.

I was only twenty-two years of age, and the whole weight of an extensive but needy Banking establishment at once devolved upon me, and I found the concern deeply involved in advances to builders and others … and the necessity of making further advances to those persons to secure the sums in which they stood indebted.

Translation: If you owe the bank £100, you’ve got a problem; if you owe the bank £100,000,000, the bank has a problem.

It took a lot less than that to run Marsh, Sibbald & Co. into the ground.

In this perplexed state the house continued until 1810, when its embarrassments were greatly increased, owing to the bankruptcies of Brickwood and others, which brought upon it a sudden demand for no less a sum than 170,000 £ … About 1814, 1815, and 1816, from the speculations with builders and brickmakers, & others, in which the house was engaged, it was called upon to provide funds to near 100,000 £, to avert the losses which would otherwise have visited it from these speculations. In 1819, the most responsible of our partners died, and we were called upon to pay over the amount of his capital, although the resources of the house were wholly inadequate to meet so large a payment. During these numerous and trying difficulties the house was nearly without resources, and the whole burthen of management falling upon me, I was driven to a state of distraction, in which I could meet with no relief from my partners, and, almost broken-hearted, I sought resources where I could, and so long as they were provided, and the credit of the house supported, no inquiries were made, either as to the manner in which they were procured, or as to the sources from whence they were derived.

In almost Dickensian fashion, our malefactor reacted more violently to allegations that the embezzlement had been effected in pursuit of a debaucherous lifestyle than he did to the criminal charge itself; if his version of bourgeois rectitude and endemic financial criminality further to the crumbling facade of his enterprise rings true, the ascetic clerk’s mortal penalty on behalf of his crummy bank will be a timely reminder of the pleasures one ought to seek before life withdraws them (or at least — just ask Robert Rubin! — of the invaluable utility of the limited liability company).

Having thus exposed all the necessities of the house, I declare that all the monies temporarily raised by me, were applied, not in one instance for my own separate purposes or expenses, but in every case they were immediately placed to the credit of the house in Berners-street, and applied to the payment of the pressing demands upon it. This fact does not rest on my assertion, as the transactions referred to are entered in the books now in the possession of the assignees, and to which I have had no access since my apprehension. These books, I understand, are now in Court, and will confirm the truth of my statement; and to whatever account all the sums may be entered, whether to that of Stock, of Exchequer Bills, or to my private account, the whole went to the general funds of the Banking-house.

Parliament abolished the death penalty for forgery in 1832. According to Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, a factor in the legislation was jurors’ increasing unwillingness to convict those accused of the crime knowing that it could lead to hanging. (See much testimony to that effect from the period’s lawyers and bankers here.)

A rumor circulated after Fauntleroy’s death — having something to do with the fame of the criminal, and something to do with what was reportedly his corpse’s unnaturally undamaged condition after the execution — that he had contrived to survive the hanging by slipping a silver tube down his throat, then absconded to live abroad.

Though evidently baseless as a factual matter, the legend is paid tribute by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, with a mysterious banker named “Fauntleroy” whose backstory would have elicited a knowing wink from many a reader in his time … and ours.

After Fauntleroy had thus spent a few empty years, coruscating continually an unnatural light, the source of it — which was merely his gold — began to grow more shallow, and finally became exhausted. He saw himself in imminent peril of losing all that had heretofore distinguished him; and, conscious of no innate worth to fall back upon, he recoiled from this calamity with the instinct of a soul shrinking from annihilation. To avoid it, — wretched man! — or rather to defer it, if but for a month, a day, or only to procure himself the life of a few breaths more amid the false glitter which was now less his own than ever, — he made himself guilty of a crime. It was just the sort of crime, growing out of its artificial state, which society (unless it should change its entire constitution for this man’s unworthy sake) neither could nor ought to pardon. More safely might it pardon murder. Fauntleroy’s guilt was discovered. He fled …

The wreck of his estate was divided among his creditors: His name, in a very brief space, was forgotten by the multitude who had passed it so diligently from mouth to mouth. Seldom, indeed, was it recalled, even by his closest former intimates. Nor could it have been otherwise. The man had laid no real touch on any mortal’s heart. Being a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, it was his law to vanish into the shadow of the first intervening cloud. He seemed to leave no vacancy; a phenomenon which, like many others that attended his brief career, went far to prove the illusiveness of his existence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Pelf,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines

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